The cruel victory: Paddy Ashdown on the French resistance during the Second World War

"The French talk about this as a glorious disaster, when actually it was a glorious victory – albeit an extremely cruel one": Paddy Ashdown talks to Matt Elton about his book on the French resistance in the Second World War, and the key, tragic role that the maquis du Vercors played in securing the country's freedom

The maquis du Vercors were a rural group of French resistance fighters who converged on the Vercors plateau in south-east France. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

What inspired you to write this book?

What has always fascinated me, having been in the Royal Marines and the special forces, are the mistakes that are made by people at the top for which people at the bottom pay the price. This, in a way, is that kind of story par excellence, because the screw-ups were made at the very top – and many of them were politically perfectly understandable – but the price paid by ‘ordinary’ people in the resistance was immense. What’s heartbreaking is that, whereas I was a professional soldier who took my chances where I could, the people that I explore in my book – the maquis du Vercors, a rural group of French resistance fighters who converged on the Vercors plateau in south-east France – were young and naive. In the heady days post-D-Day, they still believed that war was glorious and were trying to do something to liberate their country. I became obsessed by the utter tragedy of these young men who genuinely believed, as most soldiers don’t, in the glory of war and the importance of patriotism.

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Paddy Ashdown photographed by Oliver Edwards for BBC History Magazine.
Paddy Ashdown photographed by Oliver Edwards for BBC History Magazine.

Why do you think that people joined the maquis du Vercors?

The extraordinary thing is that the idea of the Vercors plateau as a centre of resistance, a place of refuge in which the shattered elements of broken France could retreat, was already quite old at this point. But suddenly at the same time, in 1941, three groups of absolutely different people – intellectuals, the defeated French army, and the socialists – all had pretty well the same idea: to create a place that could, when liberation came, hold as a fortress for the Allies to fly into.

But I think that it’s really important to understand that without the young men of France, this would just have been a middle-aged man’s dream. The Nazis had suddenly ordered young men into compulsory work in Germany, and many went to the Vercors to avoid it. Others were drawn in by the romance: that this was a place of clean living and pure air. There was a whole mixture of motives, but it’s fascinating to see that these disparate elements all came together, albeit sometimes uncomfortably. The young men became hardened maquisards, committed to the cause, and the groups largely set aside their differences to take on the Germans.

There was, however, always a divide between the rightwing military men and the primary civil organisations, which were socialist. This divide extended into what they were fighting for, which was not just how to get rid of the Germans, but also what the nature of the new France was going to be after the shame of occupation. The army wanted to keep France as it was: hierarchical, Catholic and rightwing; the socialists, who ran the civil organisation, wanted to have a new France more in tune with the tenets of the French Revolution. In the end, it worked, and their motives coagulated into a single aim as a result of the act of German oppression. There were huge internal tensions, though.

What problems were  faced in efforts to manage the resistance up until D-Day?

Muddle, in unclear lines of communication and unclear thinking. The original plan was to get the resistance in the north of France to rise, but keep the resistance in the south – in places like Vercors – undercover to be used in the course of a southern landing. One of the agents dropped in to the Vercors reported back that, if that’s what happened, the Germans would know that the Allies were only going to land in the north. And so the US army general Dwight Eisenhower took the decision – which was correct, but cost thousands of French lives – to make the entire resistance simultaneously rise when it was vastly premature for those in the south.

The leader of France’s government in exile, Charles de Gaulle, on the other hand, was desperate to make sure that France would play a part in her own liberation. So he had this plan, which was mad by anyone’s calculation, to instead do a French landing into the Massif Central. In the end that’s what the Vercors was sacrificed for: the resources that could have gone into saving it at the last minute were held in abeyance for de Gaulle’s plan. The Allies’ failure to tell him that this wasn’t acceptable was also a factor.

But I can’t blame de Gaulle. He was trying to do something enormous: to restore the greatness of France when it had nothing to bring to the table. She had been shamefully defeated, had no resources, no troops, was not even going to play a big part in her own liberation. De Gaulle’s magic, with nothing in his hand, was to restore France to a great power after the war. It was extraordinary.

How did German forces respond to the resistance in June and  July 1944?

The French in London had developed the idea of using fortresses throughout 1943 and 1944. They sought to have a static defence in three places after D-Day, and in each case the Germans attacked with more men than it was thought that they could muster and obliterated them.

This happened three times and yet people still continued with the Vercors plateau, I think, because they thought that it was too big to be surrounded and that people would be able to get away. But, on 21 July 1944, the Germans set up a cordon and simultaneously attacked from four directions so the French couldn’t respond to a single threat.

All of this shouldn’t have been surprising. There were three very clear dress rehearsals, and that somebody thought that fortresses would be a good idea is pretty bizarre in my view, because the essence of guerilla warfare is movement rather than static defence.

To continue with the Vercors was, in my opinion, stupidity of a very high order indeed.

So how did this defeat turn into the ‘cruel victory’ of your book’s title?

Several people who know this story well wrote to me when I told them that I was going to include the word ‘victory’ in the title. They all said that it wasn’t a victory, but a complete disaster. But when the maquisards were left to do what they did best – go into the forest – they survived, and came back to help drive the Germans out. It actually was an extraordinary victory, built on individual courage and leadership. They were preserved, and the Germans failed in all of their aims. The French have been talking about this as a glorious disaster, when actually it was a glorious victory, albeit an extremely cruel one infected with folly.

Yet, nevertheless, the winners were not the Germans, but the French.

The Cruel Victory by Paddy Ashdown (William Collins, 496 pages, £25)

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This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine